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Invention and innovation: An introduction
Invention and innovation: An introduction

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12.2 Technology push

The technology push model is a simple linear model that suggests that the innovation process starts with an idea or a discovery – it is sometimes called ‘idea push’ (Figure 51). Sometimes this is by a creative individual who has the knowledge and imagination to realise its significance and the practical skills to transform the idea or discovery into an invention. An example from earlier is Cockerell and his hovercraft. You also saw, with the invention of the laser, that inventors don't always foresee the ultimate commercial applications of their invention. However more often nowadays the starting point is basic scientific research or applied research and development (R&D) in organisations. This proceeds through design and development into a product that can be manufactured effectively and economically and then sold on the market.

Figure 51
Figure 51 Technology push model

The market is seen as a receptacle for the output of scientific research and invention; therefore an increase in basic and applied R&D should lead to an increase in innovation. In the past government support for innovation in many countries consisted of bolstering science and the R&D supply aspect.

In his book Enabling Innovation Boru Douthwaite (2002) criticised this process and dubbed it the ‘over-the-wall model’. An R&D team assumes it knows enough about the users’ needs to develop a new product without involving them in its specification or design. The team simply develops the product and tosses it ‘over the wall’ to users in the belief that there's a need for it, the technology is complete and ready to use, and users are technically skilled enough to use it without help.

Now there are times when this approach can work. For example Sony's development of the Walkman personal stereo cassette player was not in response to any need identified by market research (Figure 52). One of the cofounders of the company was using a Sony portable stereo tape recorder and standard-size headphones to listen to a cassette. He complained about the weight of this system to the president Akio Morita. Morita ordered his engineers to remove the recording circuit from one of their small cassette recorders (the Pressman) and replace it with a stereo amplifier. In addition he asked for lightweight headphones to be developed. The headphones turned out to be the biggest technical challenge in the project and were the most innovative component – everything else was a new application of existing technology.

Figure 52
Figure 52 Example of successful technology push, the first Sony Walkman (Source: Sony UK Ltd)

Proposed in 1979 and manufactured from 1980, Sony was first to market with this innovative product

There was scepticism within the firm as to the market appeal of a cassette player without a recording facility but Morita – acting as a product champion – pushed through the idea. Almost from its launch the Walkman was successful. As with many innovative products no amount of market research would have identified a specific need because one did not exist. Success came from encouraging a latent need by providing people with an innovative product they hadn't known they wanted.

But such instincts on the part of a manufacturer as to what might make for a successful product are not always right. For example Morita had assumed it was less antisocial to include a second headphone socket so that two people could share their listening experience. He had also included a button-activated microphone so that the two listeners could talk to each other over the music on a ‘hot line’. When this idea didn't catch on and it became clear that the early users really valued this product as a personal device, those extra features were removed.

But though the technology push model might describe the innovation process for some products, it only tells part of the story. There are numerous examples of inventions that are good ideas, scientifically or technologically sound and available to the market, yet fail to become successful innovations. The notion that if an idea is good enough, technology push will help it to overcome all obstacles to its innovation is a romantic one, but unrealistic.

Box 6 Technology push doesn't always work – the Dvorak keyboard

The QWERTY keyboard layout was developed by Christopher Latham Sholes to slow down the typist (Figure 53). The mechanical typewriters of the time often jammed if two adjoining keys were struck rapidly in succession. Sholes rearranged the keys so that the most commonly used letter sequences were spread out, slower to find and would converge from opposite sides of the machine. When typewriter mechanisms became more efficient the original justification for the QWERTY arrangement disappeared.

Figure 53
Figure 53 Prototype of the QWERTY typewriter patented by Christopher Latham Sholes in 1868 that formed the basis of the first commercial typewriter, the Remington No.1 in 1874. At this point in its development a few of the characters have yet to find their final location – this prototype starts ‘QWERTY’ (Source: Smithsonian Institute)

In 1932 Professor August Dvorak of the University of Washington used time-and-motion studies to create a more efficient keyboard layout (Figure 54). The most frequently used letters in English – A, O, E, U, I, D, H, T, N, S – were placed on the central, home row that could then account for around 70 per cent of the typing, compared with 32 per cent of the QWERTY keyboard's home keys. Dvorak also altered the balance of keys controlled by the normally weaker left-hand from 57 per cent with the QWERTY layout to 44 per cent.

However by this time there was significant vested interest in keeping the dominant design, both for manufacturers and users trained on the QWERTY layout. Dvorak's keyboard was not taken up and the QWERTY standard still dominates the market. This makes a nonsense of the saying attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson that,

If a man … make a better mouse trap than his neighbour, though he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.

Figure 54
Figure 54 Patent drawing of Dvorak's improved non-QWERTY keyboard layout (Source: US Patent 2040248)

So if the market can be resistant to good new technology, what role does the market play in encouraging invention?